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American Ballet Theatre - 'Lady of the Camellias'

The Tramp is a Lady

by Jerry Hochman

May 26, 2010 (evening) -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

There are many reasons to enjoy John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias,” and based on the audience response at the May 26 performance, American Ballet theatre has a new hit production. Although “Lady of the Camellias” is a ballet love story, it doesn’t have the kind of explosive choreography that ballet-goers are accustomed to seeing in ballet love stories. Rather, the strength of “Lady of the Camellias” is in its simplicity (although it presents a complex interweaving of time and space) and its intimacy – and in its requirement that its audiences think as well as feel.

What makes “Lady of the Camellias” as good a work of theater as it is, and as audience-pleasing as it is, is the opportunity it provides for its two lead characters, and particularly for its ballerina, to dominate the stage from beginning to end, and in the process to act up a storm without relying on extraneous thunder and lightning for support. And at the May 26th performance, Irina Dvorovenko did just that.

Irina Dvorovenko is one of ABT’s least celebrated, but most accomplished dancers. She may not get the hype of certain others, but she deserves to. I have never found her to give a performance that was less than stellar. But, for Ms. Dvorovenko, “Lady of the Camellias” was more than just another stellar performance; it was a tour de force, and a personal triumph. Ms. Dvorovenko dances in a sort of understated manner – without pyrotechnics, but with such effortless grace that you don’t realize you’re watching a great performance until the piece is nearly over and you realize she’s captured your heart. But she previously had not (at least to me) displayed a particularly powerful, dominating personality on stage. She did in this production, but it was a power tempered by subtlety and a dominance clothed in delicacy, shades of character personality that perfectly matched the choreography.

Since 1973, John Neumeier has been the Director and Chief Choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet and its ‘Ballettintendant’ (a position that includes general manager, artistic director, chief choreographer, and director of the school) since 1996. He choreographed “Lady of the Camellias” for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, and restaged it for the Hamburg Ballet in 1981. At both premieres, Marguerite was danced by Marcia Haydee, the Stuttgart’s ‘prima’ and a dancer of irresistible heart and soul, to whom Neumeier dedicated the ballet.

The story is familiar. It is based on the 1848 novel “La Dame aux Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas, fils, a source that has been mined many times before, including by Verdi in his 1853 opera “La Traviata,” in numerous film iterations of “Camille,” and in a 1963 one-act ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton, “Marguerite and Armand,” choreographed specifically for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Essentially, it is a combination love story/morality tale, with the focus on the former, but the latter being the undercurrent that propels the action.

The famous Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gautier (inspired by Dumas’s lover, Marie Duplessis) has died, her possessions are being sold at auction, and in a series of flashbacks, her lover Armand – the one of her lovers whom she loved back – recalls episodes from their relationship. These flashbacks themselves contain vision sequences and scenes within scenes, primarily relating Marguerite and Armand to the ‘fictional’ lovers Manon Lescaut, also a courtesan, and Manon’s lover Des Grieux, with Marguerite and Armand identifying with Manon and Des Grieux, and sensing that they are following the same path, with the same likely tragic outcomes. In the end (which is actually the beginning, the way the story is structured), Marguerite, despite (or perhaps because of) the control over men that her beauty, sophistication, and free-spiritedness allow, dies alone.

Neumeier’s conceit is to interweave the Marguerite and Amand/Manon and Des Grieux stories through the interweaving of a ballet based on Manon into the ‘real-time’ story of Marguerite – a ballet within the ballet, in which the fourth wall breaks down completely, and the ‘real’ characters interact with the fictional ones. The technique (a show within a show) has been done many times before, usually the ‘inner’ play being a metaphor or mirror for the ‘outer’ play.  Here, the two sets of characters become parallel characters in the same time and space.

As Neumeier has conceived it, the ballet is more about love than about passion. This is not to say that there isn’t passion on stage – there is – but the focus is the love between Marguerite and Armand, which Neumeier depicts more with tenderness than with pyrotechnics: while having similar emotional intensity, it has a lower decibel level than, for example, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon.” This sensibility is particularly appropriate to the Chopin selections which Neumeier chose as the foundation for his choreography. Just as the Chopin music (most of which is only played by piano) is light and refined, but also inherently passionate, so Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias” is lighter and more refined than other similarly themed romantic ballets. Indeed, it impressed me as being a “chamber ballet’ of sorts. Even though it occupies a full stage, it is essentially a series of consecutive dances for two, three, or four, occasionally interrupted by dances for larger ensembles. As a result, it looks and feels ‘smaller,’ and creates a remarkable ambiance of intimacy between the performers on stage and the audience.

Indeed, just as the fourth wall between the Manon performance and the Marguerite/Armand audience breaks down physically due to the interaction between the two sets of lovers, the fourth wall between the Marguerite/Armand performance and the audience breaks down as well – not just because of an individual dancer’s performance, but because Neumeier has choreographed it that way (the action frequently crosses the proscenium to the edge of the stage, almost into the lap of the audience). And although the ballet proceeds linearly through the course of Marguerite and Armand’s relationship, the layering of visions and flashbacks provides a complex framework upon which the simple purity of the theme is presented. And as a result, the ballet breathes.

As for the choreography itself, I have previously found Neumeier’s work to often look forced and repetitive. I had the same observation occasionally in this piece, and at times found myself dwelling as much on the joys of Jerome Robbins’s choreography to Chopin as on the movement in front of me. But the more I see this work, the more I suspect that that I’ll ignore the temptation to think about other dances. In its most important part – the evolution and reflection in movement of the relationship between Marguerite and Armand – the choreography soars. By way of example, in the first act, the dancers’ port de bras appear to be visualizations of songs from the heart: the hands move forward from the chest and spread outward and upward as if to embrace the air – a little like Bournonville port de bras (but without the accompanying Bournonville emphatic buoyancy). The result is a sensation of openness and warmth that invites the audience in.

Aside from Ms. Dvorovenko, the cast at this performance was largely first rate. Armand has as much time on stage, and is as demanding in its way, as Marguerite. Cory Stearns, Ms. Dvorovenko’s Armand, has impressed me from the first time I saw him dance as having the personality of a boy scout, with an inherent innocence that may not permit him to assay characters requiring either noble bearing or sensual aggressiveness. And his characterization here scared me at first – as if it might morph into an episode of Cougar Town (albeit a bit more sophisticated). He looked so young, so inexperienced; as if he were more Marguerite’s puppy dog than potential suitor/conquest. But Mr. Stearns has a heart, which he wears on his sleeve – and in that respect he is perfectly suited for the role of Armand. And although his range still seems a bit limited, he was able to mature from a young boy to a young man as the evening progressed. But there is nothing limited about Mr. Stearns’s abilities as a partner: as always, his partnering here of Ms. Dvorovenko was never less than superb.

The choreography for Manon and Des Grieux emphasizes the interaction between the parallel characters (Marguerite/Manon; Des Grieux/Armand); the ‘relationship’ between Manon and Des Grieux is relatively insignificant.  So perhaps it’s understandable that there was little chemistry between Stella Abrera and Blaine Hoven.  But, more significantly, I found little in Ms. Abrera’s characterization to make me believe she was portraying a notorious courtesan (although her technical execution was impeccable).  On the other hand, Vitali Krauchenka, as Armand’s father, was a pleasant surprise. Although the character doesn’t have much physically to do, it is central to the piece, as it is his displeasure with the notion of his son cavorting with a prostitute that moves the story along. His portrayal included a quiet dignity and sensitivity that I did not expect, and he turned what could have been a cardboard character into a man who cared deeply about his son, but who could also feel the pain of others. Luciana Paris and Melanie Hamrick played courtesan friends/rivals of Marguerite with frivolity and zest, and Gennadi Saveliev as Gaston Rieux, Marguerite and Armand’s mutual friend who first introduces the love-struck boy to the most desirable courtesan in Paris, delivered a performance of refined frivolity. And as Nanina, Marguerite’s maid, Christine Shevchenko, converted what could have been a wooden role into one that was compassionate and human.

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